Thursday, May 02, 2013

Kanban: From Work to Home and Back Again

A few weeks ago, I mentioned in my weekend reading post that I was looking at kanban ideas for project management. Kanban is a management technique that came out of Japanese manufacturing, and it is getting popular for software development projects. I am still learning about it, so I won't try to give a full description. It is a method that focus on the flow of work more than schedules, and has an explicit goal of limiting work in progress. The original reason for this was for supply chain management, I think, but it turns out to be a powerful method even for projects whose work products are produced primarily from peoples brains. The link in my weekend reading post will lead you to more information, if you're curious. I've started experimenting with it at work, in particular the idea of limiting the work in progress, and early signs are that it is going to be useful.

Before I implemented anything for my projects at work, though, I wanted to try it out. So I set up a personal kanban board for home, using KanbanFlow, a free online tool. I've been using it for about a month now, and I really like the results. I am using the default kanban board, which has columns for the backlog ("To-Do"), Do Today, In Progress, and Done. I rarely use the Do Today lane, so I may remove that. This is what my home board looks like right now:

The aspect of the kanban approach that I find most useful is the explicit recognition of a backlog, and the idea that you should limit the number of things you have in progress at any one time. I have never been the sort of person who was bothered by a long to do list, as long as I felt that everything I truly needed to do was captured on that list, and as long as I knew what needed to be done first. I had evolved a system of lists that helped with that- I had a global to do list, but then pulled out specific tasks for a monthly, weekly, or daily list, depending on my needs at the time.

Kanban takes this a step further, by encouraging me to think carefully about how many tasks I have in flight at any one time. The backlog can grow and grow, but I only move 2-3 tasks to In Progress at a time. At first, I did this just because I was trying out the system. But now I do it because it works. Moving a task to In Progress is equivalent to saying "this is my current priority." So if I have time to work on something, I can take a quick look at the board and I know which thing I should do. No more just doing what sounds most interesting, and having 20 things half done but nothing finished. Of course, I could still do that- but the visual reminder that the kanban board seems to be enough to keep me focused.

"Get the kids passports" has been on my master to do list literally for years. We've decided that we're going to New Zealand this year, though, so it was time to get it done. I moved it into my In Progress column, and it was done within a week. Same thing with "buy a new computer, " which had been on my to do list for several months. It spent roughly a week and a half in the In Progress column and is done now. Now I'm tackling checking into our options for refinancing our house and we're starting to plan our trip to New Zealand.

I also like how easy it is to throw something on the backlog, and how that is kept visually separate from my current tasks. If I remember to do something, I just pop open the board and type in a card. I can easily drag them around to prioritize my list later, if I want.

There are a lot of other features in KanbanFlow, but I make only light use of them. I've set up categories (the different colors for the tasks) and I use the subtask checklists (I love my checklists!) but haven't found it useful to try to set due dates on most things. It seems to be enough to just work on the flow of tasks. I've decided to go "all in" on this new method, and transfer all of my non-work items from my global to do list to the backlog on my kanban board. Mr. Snarky is still on the fence, but he has actually used it, which is more than I can say for the shared Google Doc that was our previous joint to do list. I think he likes the fact that he can make subtasks and also capture notes directly on the "card" for a task.

I've liked my home kanban board so much that I've set up a work kanban board, too. I'd actually prefer to have them mixed together, but my company's particular rules about putting data in the cloud preclude that. I've also given over my office whiteboard to a physical program level kanban board for all of my group's projects, and have been using that to prevent people from adding more projects to our In Progress lanes before we clear out the ones that are already there. I'm experimenting with ideas for how to use the board to avoid piling too many projects on one person at a time- we're far from ideal in that area right now, and it is showing in our productivity. There are some members of the department, most notably our director, who have a tendency to get a lot of things spun up at once. For some people on my team, that is no problem- they have their own methods for prioritizing projects and staying productive. For others, it is sapping their productivity to the point that they are practically paralyzed, as they try to move all of their projects forward at once. The board is helping us visualize the problem, and that alone is helping to solve it. I may come back and write more about that in a future post, once our use of kanban at work has had a chance to mature.

For now, though, I can enthusiastically recommend kanban to anyone who is looking for a little more order in their to do list, particularly if you find that things get started but not finished.

This is NOT a sponsored post. KanbanFlow is just one of many kanban board options out there. I've been happy with it, but as I say in the post, I haven't really given it a thorough workout. I also haven't investigated smartphone apps for kanban, but they are definitely out there. KanbanFlow doesn't have an app, but they have a mobile website. It seems fine, but I haven't used it much. I am not someone who needs constant access to her to do list, I guess.


  1. Kanban Flow sounds similar to an app I've downloaded recently called Trello. I've been debating the utility of it and whether I'll use it. As you say, it feels to me, for it to be really useful I've go to go all-in.

    And passports - those are painful so I'm not surprised it was on your list for a long time. I've had 'Get Moo's NZ citizenship' on my list of things to do for three years now, but needing a passport photo for that means I keep pushing it down my list of things to do. It's not like it is particularly essential as there are no issues about eligibility for services as an Australian and/or child anyway. However, it will be easier to do here than from Australia so we should get on to it...

    1. I've heard of Trello- the guy who owns the company that writes it had a very popular software blog for awhile (Joel on Software). He rarely updates these days. If I were a freelancer I might check it out- I think it is supposed to shine when you have different "contexts" for your tasks.

      In the end, the passport thing was only painful because Petunia wouldn't hold still for the picture. There are places where we could turn in the forms and get the picture taken in one stop. But because Petunia wouldn't let them take her picture, we had to go away and do that on our own, and then come back to submit.

    2. I tried setting up a Trello account last week, and used Kanban Flow today. I already prefer Kanban Flow for the Pomodoro timer, but I haven't tried sharing either with a team. We are just in the process of implementing project planning at my company, and some teams have experimented with Trello. I don't really work on a "team" so hard for me to evaluate that way, but I will see if this might be a good recommendation for some of the teams!

  2. Anonymous6:21 AM

    Wow, this looks exactly like how I manage my projects, except I use folded up paper (I must be a genius... but I never realize these things until someone else has patented them). I tried switching my paper lists to google docs for a while, and then to email, but that would work for like a month and then I'd stop updating them. I wonder if kanban would work for me or if I'd have the same problem that Laura Vanderkam was talking about yesterday/today about needing to actually be able to see the thing out in front of me on the desk.

    I suppose I could always try it out and see if it lasts me longer than a month before going back to paper.

    1. The original kanban was paper-based- the name comes from the cards that were used to indicate work flowing through the process.

      My daily to do list at work is paper, and nothing I've ever tried on the computer can replace it. But I like having my home tasks online, so that I can add items to that list when I'm away from my list (generally, at work). I suppose an old-fashioned paper day planner would work for that, but I don't want more things to carry!

  3. Anonymous9:02 AM

    This dovetails nicely with some of the ideas in Laura Vanderkam's latest ebook - particularly the section in "Make Success Possible" where Chalene Johnson talks about limiting her daily priority list to 6 items. Thanks for the idea!

  4. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Great review - I started fiddling with KanbanFlow when you first mentioned it and I'm really enjoying it too. I tried Trello as well, and it work as well for me. I love that your blog contributes to my distractions and my productivity :)

  5. Very cool. I just set this up and will give it a try. What I'd really like is a way to integrate this with my calendar - some of the things on my list have to be done at very specific times - usually because they require particular equipment or space that has to be booked, or because one thing has to be finished before the next bit can get started, and I can't quite see how to do that yet.

  6. You’ve got some interesting points in this article. I would have never considered any of these if I didn’t come across this. Thanks!. home building companies

  7. Very helpful article for those who wants to revamp their workstations and rooms! I fell inlove with Pottery Barn's furniture. They have wide range of furniture that is suitable for every personality, preferences of a person. I believe that beautiful workstation leads to better from home

  8. This is a topic that’s near to my heart… Many thanks! Where are your contact details though? Indian tourist visa citizens are eligible to apply for the Indian eVisa. You can apply for an Indian 30 days tourist visa registration via mobile phone, computer or desk.

  9. I’m still learning from you, while I’m improving myself. I certainly enjoy reading everything that is posted on your website. Keep the articles coming. I enjoyed it! Hey,… if you ever have time, please feel free to drop by (wellington demolition contractors), I’m sure you’d be interested in some of our services. I was just thinking I should grab this chance to provide valuable information too.

  10. Great job! A very informative article thanks for sharing... please keep it up... The Indian visa application system is fully online, and the Indian visa cost 2022 has some changes and it depends on your visa type and your nationality.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.